DOC Rule Change means longer sentences for Prisoners
A rule change by the Colorado State Department of Corrections could mean offenders with already long sentences, mostly for drug offenses, will be incarcerated longer. Under the new rule, which went into effect on October 1st, 2009, prisoners required to participate in DOC's intensive 9 – 12 month therapeutic community program for drugs and alcohol will not be eligible to do so until they are within 8 years of their mandatory release date.
Under Colorado statute, prisoners are eligible for early release (discretionary parole) after serving 50% of their sentence, and receive 10 days a month earned time if they are charged with a non-violent offense. Violent offenders receive only 6 days a month 'earned time', and are required to serve 75% of their sentences before being paroled. For a non-violent offender serving a 30-year stretch, that means that he or she is parole eligible after 12 years, if they have complied with all conditions of confinement.
In practice, however, such discretionary paroles are seldom granted. Even the Governor's plan to rease prisoners 6 months before their mandatory release date has run into fierce, and very public, opposition from the parole board itself, which remands prisoners to their mandatory release dates more than 90% of the time. On a 30-year sentence that means spending 23 years behind bars.
Colorado law, however, makes prisoners eligible to be discharged to a halfway house or correctional treatment facility 18 months before an offender's first parole eligibility date in the case of non-violent offenders, and 9 months before in the case of violent offenders. That means a non-violent offender serving a 30-year stretch on a drug case can return to the community in just over 10 years. While still technically still in DOC custody such prisoners are free to secure employment, take passes from their facility, to attend AA/NA meetings, to spend time with their loved ones, and to secure housing after 1 year to 18 months on Intensive Supervised parole.
Intensive Supervised Parole uses an ankle monitor to track the movement of such prisoners in the community, along with close supervision that may include anti-abuse, drug and alcohol patches, classes and therapy, together with restricted movement and regular home visits. A prisoner who violates these conditions, either while in a halfway house or correctional treatment facility, or while on Intensive Supervised Parole, is charged with charged with escape and must do the remainder of his or her sentence, plus however many additional years the court imposes for the 'escape' (which often involves little more than walking away from the halfway house and getting drunk).
Eligibility, however, does not translate into acceptance by the community boards whose approval is required for admission to one of Colorado's 34 community corrections programs. Few want offendors with extensive criminal records and long sentences. That is especially true of those prisoners labeled by the legislatively-mandated drug and alcohol assessment process as being in need of 'intensive drug and alcohol treatment'.
Even when they successfully complete such required treatment before applying to a halfway house their chances are less than average. One of the few programs interested in accepting such prisoners is Peer One, an intensive community based correctional treatment program located on the IT Logan grounds in Denver. But Peer One has only 150 beds, about 2/3 of which hold DOC prisoners – and with over 22,000 men in the Colorado prison system, admissions is far from a sure thing (a separate women's program called 'The Haven' serves women and their children).
Prisoners fear that the new Department of Corrections (DOC) rules governing admission to the therapeutic community program (or TC for short) will make it even more difficult for those serving long sentences regardless of their statutory eligibility to apply for parole or community corrections placement. By imposing such treatment as a requirement (based on supposedly 'scientific' testing), and refusing to allow them to complete the required treatment until 8 years before their mandatory release, the DOC in effect labels these prisoners as having a 'disease' characterized by 'moral obliquity, mental depravity and other kindred evil', and hence at greater risk of re-offending than other prisoners that haven't been labeled in this way.
While either the Parole Board, or any of the 34 Community Boards, are free under the statute to consider releasing such prisoners into the community untreated, in reality they are very unlikely to do so. The labeling alone makes it less likely that such prisoners would be released before being treated, even if they are applying to be transferred to the community treatment program 'Peer One' – and Peer One's long waiting list means it's likely to be years after they are treated before they are admitted to the community treatment program.
As a result, an offender serving a 30-year sentence will now serve 15 years before being eligible for the 9-12 month TC program, and can expect to remain in custody years after its completion waiting for a bed at a facility willing to accommodate offenders with high drug and alcohol scores, and the presumption of heightened risk for recidivism implied by scientific testing.
For prisoners with less time to serve the situation is also bad. A prisoner with a 4 or 6 year sentence for example was previously often eligible to leave prison for a halfway house in as little as 6 months after entering DOC with credit for time already served in county jail. Prisoners identified as subject to forced treatment, however, must complete such treatment to be eligible either for early parole, or for a halfway house, and must wait for a bed to become available in order to do so. The whole process often means an additional year to 18 months before the prisoners can be considered for release to the community.
The new DOC rules governing admission to treatment should free up bed space in the program for such offenders, but fails to address that the classification process itself imposes on them harsher conditions of confinement than other prisoners charged with identical crimes solely on the basis of testing. While Governor Ritter has called the Therapeutic Community (TC) “programs to reduce criminal recidivism” and urged that funding for such programs be preserved in the interest of public safety. Many prisoners consider the programs abusive, humiliating, and degrading, and feel that the coercive methods used to force prisoners to participate in them violates their right to refuse unwanted medical treatment. Unlike many prisoners with much longer sentences hopeful for early release, many, if not most of those with relatively short sentences are resentful and angry about their placement.
Despite all the hoopla, there is no 'magic bullet' to deal with the treatment of addiction and alcoholism. Alcoholics' Anonymous World Services estimates that 93% of all alcoholics will fail to maintain their sobriety for 2 or more years, with 85% failing to make it even a single year. In his “Handbook of Alcoholism Treatment Approaches”, former University of New Mexico researcher William R. Miller examined who recovered and why. Not surprisingly, Miller and his fellow researchers found that those most likely to recover were those who had the most stake in the society, and hence the most support. Predictably, they found that the earlier the problem started, and the more alienated the person affected by it, the worse the prognosis for abstinence-based recovery outcomes. In other words, a 50 year old man who was living under a bridge was less likely to come out of prison and change his behavior than a 30 year old lawyer with a career, house and family.
Miller also found that more treatment did not necessarily lead to better outcomes. Comparing the completion rates of 28-day inpatient programs with longer-term programs, some of them several years in length, Miller found that completion rates fell as program length increased. So in a 28-day program, around 90% complete the program, while for a 2 year program 90% fail to do so. Thus, when the operators of a 2-year program say that 'more than 70% of our graduates are sober 2 years after leaving us', they are referring to 7% of those who start the program. What they are actually saying is that their program does nothing more than tell its participants to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, when those who fail to complete the program are factored in to the equation.
Worse, Miller and his colleagues found that 'tough love' programs like Peer One and Therapeutic Community (TC) that rely on 'behavior modification' treatments had the lowest success rates of any of the methodologies they studied – though they were unable to say if this was because such intensive long term approaches attracted more dysfunctional clients, or if the methods themselves were at fault.
In the case of DOC, however, 80% of prisoners are below the poverty line, with nearly half out of work at the time of their arrest, and those referred to correctional treatment having had drug and alcohol problems dating back to their early teens (in some cases even earlier). With these prisoners, its clear that drug and alcohol treatment is a serious challenge. But this challenge is mandated by the Legislature under the Substance Abuse Act to be dealt with by the DOC.
The law mandates DOC to conduct testing as to prisoners' need for treatment, to assign the most seriously afflicted to the intensive TC program, and to punish those who fail to comply. Those punishments include a loss of up to six days a month of earned time, restriction of privileges such as access to yard, TV, commissary, denial of educational and vocational training, denial of access to halfway houses, or parole. For all that, roughly 40% of all prisoners fail to complete the TC program. Of those who do complete the TC program and are admitted to halfway houses, half are returned to custody – often with new charges. When those prisoners are added to those who fail to complete the program, it is questionable that the program does anything at all to treat or reduce anything!
DOC has yet to devise testing that can predict with any certainty the future conduct of any given offender, whether that offender is treated in a substance abuse program or not. Right now, 70% of all offenders paroled from the DOC system returned to custody, while 50% of those released returned with new charges. The problem here is not only the offenders themselves. Existing laws return prisoners to custody, often for many years, due to petty offenses like possession of marijuana – even when they have already served 75% or even 95% of their sentence (I personally will serve 45 months on a 48 month sentence for refusing TC). Prisoners face a challenging re-entry to society made more difficult by lengthy terms of mandatory parole. Mandating programs that debase, humiliate and abuse prisoners in the guise of 'treatment' for a 'disease' fails to establish how such 'diseased' prisoners differ in their degree of 'moral obliquity, depravity and kindred evil' from other prisoners charged with the same crimes, who in many cases have longer criminal records.
Nor does TC do anything to prepare such prisoners for release to anywhere other than other similar institutions in the community, from which most will return here for 'further treatment'. No prisoner should be subject to unwanted and intrusive psychological treatment that violates their rights under the 8th and 14th amendment solely to avoid further punishment or confinement. At the same time, placement in community corrections from prison is not a right, and prisoners, especially those with long sentences, should be able to participate in such intensive treatment programs voluntarily in order to demonstrate their willingness to submit to such conditions to get out early. By both mandating such intensive treatment and denying it to those most motivated to complete it, DOC in effect changes the law with no input from the legislature, and makes prisoners with long sentences – often on a combination of minor charges and mandatory minimums – ineligible for release until at least 7 years before their mandatory release date. With Colorado currently reeling from an 18% drop in tax revenue, it's a change that the state should rescind.
Convict writer Tom Gomez is serving 4 years in prison for the commercial burglary of a pharmacy in Telluride, CO. Tom needs your help to keep publishing on Indymedia. If you can help by typing up and posting some of his articles, or if you would like to correspond with him, he can be reached at:
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